WASHINGTON — President Trump is our conspiracy-theorist-in-chief. The newly released readout of his phone call with the leader of Ukraine yet again confirms it.
According to the read-out of the conversation released by the White House, Trump used his July 25th congratulatory call with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to not only ask him to investigate former vice president Joe Biden but also to investigate an American cybersecurity company named Crowdstrike.
“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump tells Zelensky, according to the readout. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say Crowdstrike…I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Here’s the context needed to understand Trump’s disturbing, if somewhat incoherent, request.
Crowdstrike is a well-known cybersecurity firm based in the U.S. that the Democratic National Committee hired to investigate the successful hacking operation in 2016 that targeted the DNC. In June 2016, Crowdstrike concluded that two hacking operations — one known as Fancy Bear and the other Cozy Bear — were responsible for the devastating cyberattack on the DNC. Both Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear had strong connections to the Russian government, Crowdstrike said — a conclusion that was later confirmed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
On the far-right fringes, however, a conspiracy theory formed that Crowdstrike was somehow part of a Deep State plot to wrongly blame Russia for the DNC hack. This theory claims that because the DNC and Crowdstrike didn’t give the FBI the “server” that was hacked, that was evidence of a cover-up. In Trump’s regurgitating of this theory to the Ukrainian president he also seemed to suggest that the DNC server in question had ended up in Ukraine because, as Trump has falsely claimed, Crowdstrike has Ukrainian owners.
The underlying motivation of those supporting this theory (including Trump himself) is to deny that Russia carried out the DNC hacking scandal. If Russia didn’t hack the DNC, then the controversy around Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in 2016 would go away.
This is all nonsense. For starters, there is no single “server.” As Robert Mueller would later disclose, the DNC was forced to decommission more than 140 servers after the Russia hack. Thomas Rid, a cybersecurity expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has pointed out that the FBI didn’t need the servers themselves to fully investigate the DNC hack:
This DNC-didn't-give-the-server-to-the-FBI idea makes no sense.
—disk images of many machines *in the network*
—memory dumps of *connected* boxes
—the adversary's movement in situ (network logs)
—other data, eg exfil behavior
*Not* some disconnected server
— Thomas Rid (@RidT) April 20, 2018
By all indications, the FBI got what it needed from the DNC and Crowdstrike. Then-FBI Director James Comey testified that the bureau received from the DNC what he called an “appropriate substitute” for the servers and internet architecture in question. The voluminous results of the FBI’s investigation can be found in Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for carrying out the DNC hack as well as the final Mueller report.
Crowdstrike sent a statement to Rolling Stone on Wednesday stating that “with regards to our investigation of the DNC hack in 2016, we provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI. As we’ve stated before, we stand by our findings and conclusions that have been fully supported by the US Intelligence community.”
But conspiracy theorists rarely let facts get in the way, and the unhinged story about Crowdstrike and the “missing server” percolated on the right until it reached the president himself.
Since taking office, Trump has tweeted close to a dozen times about the fictional “missing server” — indeed, it appears to be one of his go-to conspiracy theories.
….Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t the FBI take possession of it? Deep State?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2018
The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats, should look into the missing DNC Server, Crooked Hillary’s illegally deleted Emails, the Pakistani Fraudster, Uranium One, Podesta & so much more. It’s a Democrat Con Job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 7, 2018
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
Trump told the Associated Press in 2017 that Crowdstrike was owned by “a very rich Ukrainian.” (It’s not. It’s a publicly traded company with many different investors.) In the same interview, he said Crowdstrike and the DNC didn’t allow the FBI to “see the server.” (There wasn’t just one server, and the FBI has said it got full access to the forensic information it needed to conduct an investigation.)
Most infamously, when asked at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump responded by invoking the missing-server conspiracy theory. “You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server?” he said. “Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been asking it for months and months. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?”
Now, the readout of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president takes the president’s conspiracy theorizing to another level. Not only has he endorsed this nonsensical theory on Twitter and in press conferences, but we now know he does it in private calls with foreign leaders and is using the power of the oval office to press for actual investigations.